Presenter (Ann Fahey):
Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” in 1918, while he was serving in the army at Camp Upton in Yaphank N.Y. Although he finished the song in 1918, the song did not become popular until 1938. The reason for this is the song was originally written for a show called “Yip Yip Yaphank,” but Berlin thought the lyrics for “God Bless America” did not fit the theatricality of the performance. With the rise of Adolf Hitler to power in Europe in the late 1930s and impending war, Berlin decided to revisit his score for “God Bless America,” intending to rewrite it as a peace song. On November 11, 1938, Kate Smith, also known as the “First Lady of Radio,” sang Berlin’s latest work on her Armistice Day radio broadcast. After Smith’s performance, the song became wildly popular and was even hailed as the new National Anthem. “God Bless America” was then sung on national television, appeared in musicals, and even became the good luck charm for the Philadelphia Flyers. God Bless America remains popular today with people such as Celine Dion, Daniel Rodriguez, Whitney Houston, and LeAnn Rimes covering it, earning the song a spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Berlin’s hymn like tune proves to be extremely patriotic through its lyrics, making its listeners proud to be part of the “land that I love.”
Contextualizer (Samantha Jankowitz):
The revision of “God Bless America” did thoroughly fit the trend of the decade. With the war approaching, Irving Berlin attempted to create a peace song, that could harmonize all of America. While the actual rhythm of the song was standard for a classical piece of the time, the lyrics of the song were innovative. Berlin had aspirations to create a song to dramatize harmony within America. This could be seen in the sports games of the 1940’s. Many teams found this song to be a good luck charm. One of the teams in particular was the Philadelphia Flyers, who created the saying “Its not over until the fat lady sings.” There were many sources of controversy around the song and the composer himself. The fact that Berlin was a Jewish immigrant made many question if he had the right to evoke God or even call America his home. Further the song “This Land is Your Land,” was created in rebuttal to the song as people began to get tired of hearing Kate Smith’s voice on the radio. The song tells a lot of what was going on in America at the time, such as the increased interest in the Boys and Girls Scouts of America, and even the fact that media could relay a message. Considering both Democrats and Republicans of the time adopted the song as a patriotic ode I personally believe it is safe to say that Berlin succeeded in his attempts to create harmony amongst the US population
Connector (Jen Rencis):
In both the 1930s and in contemporary times, “God Bless America” has symbolized the strong pride and patriotism that has existed in the United States. The song’s introduction by Kate Smith on Armistice Day in 1938 highlights the rising tensions in America over the awaited outbreak of World War II. The opening lyrics “While the storm clouds gather far across the sea” even reference the war that was brewing over in Europe. “God Bless America” was truly a cherished song in America, and in 1955, Irving Berlin received the Gold Medal from President Eisenhower in recognition for his services to the country in writing “God Bless America” and other patriotic songs for the United States. In 1982, Kate Smith was also awarded, when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan for her rendition of the American classic. After September 11, 2001, “God Bless America” made a momentous reappearance when Celine Dion sang the song on the television special America: A Tribute to Heroes, launching the song onto the Top 40 at the time. Dion’s performance signaled a renewed sense of patriotism in America during this time of hardship. After 9/11, “God Bless America” replaced “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch of baseball games. The song’s reverent performance during this part of the game starkly contrasts the lighthearted tone of the previous occupant of the seventh inning stretch. America’s profound respect for this anthem was displayed in 2009, when a man was kicked out of Yankee’s Stadium when he tried to get up to use the bathroom during the singing of “God Bless America”. Both during World War II and the war in the Middle East, “God Bless America” has inspired hope and pride in America across the decades.
Why do you think “God Bless America” has been so successful at instilling pride, hope, and patriotism within the United States, both in the 1930s and after 9/11 in 2001?
In response to the discussion question that was posed to the class, another question to considered emerged: why was “God Bless America” acknowledged as the new national anthem over the existing national anthem—“The Star Spangled Banner”? After some reflection, it was suggested that the reason for “God Bless America” ’s popularity may be due to the common tendency of ‘out with the old, and in with the new’. Another possible reason for America’s reverence of this song may be due to the relative ease with which it can be sung, in comparison to the extreme high and low notes that are required from “The Star Spangled Banner”. Unlike the broad octave range and complex lyrics that make the national anthem a challenge for even professional singers to perform, “God Bless America” consists of a mid-level range of notes, making the song more manageable for the average singer. The lyrics of Berlin’s composition are easily relatable and understandable for the average American. They allude to the relatively recent and extremely memorable World War II, rather than explicitly mentioning it, which reduces the need for listeners to have complete background knowledge of the event, in order to appreciate the song. “The Star Spangled Banner”, on the other hand, is a more dated piece of music (it was written in 1814), and it celebrates an American victory over the British during the War of 1812. Unlike World War II, the War of 1812 is a somewhat forgotten war for most Americans, and “The Star Spangled Banner” ‘s graphic lyrical depictions cause listeners to get caught up in the details of the lyrics, instead of being able to focus and fully enjoy the song.
It was also mentioned that America’s preference towards “God Bless America” over the country’s own national anthem could be attributed to the song’s central themes of peace and patriotism. While the anthem does take place in the midst of World War II’s outbreak, Irving Berlin was careful in avoiding any mention of war in his song. During its rewrite, Berlin even removed the line “Make her victorious on land and foam” because the word ‘victorious’ hinted at conflict. On the contrary, “The Star Spangled Banner” has the potential to generate discomfort among listeners with its inclusion of multiple explicit and violent scenes: “the bombs bursting in air”; “the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion”; “Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution”; “gloom of the grave”. So while, as someone pointed out, peace and nationalism tend to be conflicting ideas, “God Bless America” leverages both to create a passionate and pride-instilling anthem to the United States.
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